This isn’t some obscure title we’re on about this week – it’s Alien. The 1979 classic from Ridley Scott is etched into the public conscience with good bloody reason. It’s a terrifying, psychological romp that made of star of Sigourney Weaver, director Scott, H.R. Giger, and that xenomorphy alien creature that, thankfully, doesn’t actually exist.
Alien is a slow-paced, tense, and macabre tale of existential horror – when you realise your species is rubbish compared to the slice of slimy, dribbling “perfection” you come up against. It tells the tale of future, ordinary nobodies being exploited by a rich organisation to secure a highly destructive alien creature. It stands up remarkable well to this day and features Scott’s trademark genius level cinematography. Here we go!
Cargo ship workers aboard the good ship Nostromo are asleep in stasis. They’re awoken unexpectedly and discover they’re still in the middle of bloody nowhere (i.e. deep space) by the ship’s computer – Mother. This old hag has discovered an eerie signal from a nearby planet. After an tense debate, the seven crew members realise they have to check out the planetoid, LV-426, as it’s written in their contracts.
The laid-back Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Officer Kane (Sir John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) don space suits and head out to discover what’s going on. This is where the suspense really begins to ramp up, as artist H.R. Giger’s astonishing work is unlike anything you’ll see again – bio-mechanical, psychotic, clinical, yet sexually charged slices of Hell realised right before your eyes.
During this expedition, Kane is attacked by a bizarre creature and transported back to the ship (fun fact, what’s less scary about this scene is knowing the blue lights used were taken from rock band The Who’s set next door at Shepperton Studios – the band was busy filming rockumentary the Kids Are Alright). Dubious Science Officer Ash (Sir Ian Holm) lets them back on board, contravening Officer Ripley’s (Weaver) orders and then things really hit the fan.
This is our favourite bit of the film, as it’s so very human. What the Hell is that thing, and how do you get it off him? The facehugger is such a disgusting looking thing – the antithesis of its psychotically beautiful eventual creation – and its purpose is even more revolting and deeply disturbing. It attacks what it is that makes us human.
We think most people reading this will be aware of what happens next, but it’s simultaneously grotesque, horrifying, but completely believable as we have parasitic creatures on Earth that aren’t too far removed from this (look up the Bot Fly… gross). We’ve left it off here, but go and watch the film if you want a bit of gore on your conscience.
Leaving off the synopsis there, what strikes us now is the fact nothing much happens in the film. There’s the landing on LV-426, Kane’s impregnation, Kane “giving birth”, then an all out pitched battle for survival. What makes it so special is the steady build up, also employed by Steven Spielberg in Jaws and James Cameron in the 1986 sequel Aliens.
You don’t really see the xenomorph much – in Jaws you barely see the shark (as you would do in real life, just fleeting glances), and the same for Aliens. It’s masterly film making as you, the viewer, aren’t over-saturated with special effects.
In the meantime, the excellent script and exceptional, natural performances make this world wholly believable. Ash and Ripley don’t get on, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) flirts with hot stuff Lambert between bouts of complaining about his pay, Captain Dallas has a massive beard and is incredibly laid back, they have a cat called Jonesy (for some reason), and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) seems to be half drunk or stoned all the time.
Normal, ordinary, believable people. All of whom are plunged into a quite atrocious situation – they begin to work together to overcome the odds, but rising above the rest comes Ripley. Sigourney Weaver’s defining role is quite brilliant, really, as it’s powerful but not forced – we wouldn’t describe it as a “feminist” role as that would be too trite.
Ripley is someone trapped in a situation she can’t do anything about, but the survival instincts kick in and she rises to the challenge. This, along with so many other factors, make Alien a highly memorable cinema classic that packs one intense, chest bursting punch to the gut. Or stomach. Whatever word you want to use.
Another favourite section of ours are the striking opening credits, with some ethereal music (courtesy of composer Jerry Goldsmith) and the sporadic appearance of “ALIEN” across the screen. It’s beautiful to watch unfold and doesn’t get the recognition it deserves – Scott was something of an opening credits specialist back then, as he bettered Alien with the breathtaking beginning to Blade Runner (well worth watching the full clip below).
Alien also helped popularise movie taglines, with one copywriter landing the excellent: “In space no one can hear you scream.” Elsewhere, Jaws’ was: “You’ll never go in the water again”. However, the vastly inferior Jaws 2 came up with the much better , “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”.
Aliens (1986) used various rubbishy ones as the marketing team couldn’t make their minds up – “This time it’s war” and other such generic bumf. We recommend, “In space, no one can hear you eat ice cream” should it get another run in cinemas at some point.
Alien cost a mere $10 million to make – it went on to inhale circa $200 million at the box office. Score! Naturally, Brandywine Productions wanted a sequel to capitalise and earn even more glistening, lovely moolah, but due to top exec changes at 20th Century Fox, this changed interest in producing anything. Scott went off to do other things, and Weaver was constantly busy, but eventually James Cameron was landed after the success of the Terminator in 1984.
He went on to dish out Aliens in 1986. It’s a goddamn masterpiece. Debate still rages between fans over the best Alien film, but we can say happily that Alien and Aliens are both magnificent, but it really depends on your mood which one you’d rather watch.
Since then, the series has gone into decline. Studio interference destroyed David Fincher’s Alien 3, there have been a batch of other terrible romp alongs, but then Ridley Scott got back in on the action. Prometheus (2012) was first up and… well, if you watch it now it’s not as bad as you remember. It should have been a lot better, however, and that script is beyond idiotic.
Alien: Covenant (2017) was next up and was even more daft, but we actually enjoyed that one a great deal despite its flaws. There will be more on the way, for sure, but the truth is it’s the 1979 classic that started this journey and it’ll forever hold a special place in many cinema buff’s cold, dark, remorseless, picky hearts.